Asghar Ali Engineer



My friend and  noted Hindi writer Kamleshwar wrote an excellent novel Kitne Pakistan (How Many Pakistan?) and in that novel he counts Maulana Shibli No’mani as one of narrow minded Muslim. I  told Kamleshwar he has done great injustice to Shibli.” These are  the opening lines of Engineer’s article.


Shibli  was highly critical of Muslim League and its politics and great supporter of Indian national Congress and nationalist. Kamleshwar told me he will make the necessary change in the English version of the Novel which was being published by Penguin. However, soon after that he died and I do not know whether he could get time to make that correction.


Like Kamleshwar many Muslims and non-Muslims think a theologian or a religious scholar would always be narrow minded and is bound to support religion-based politics and in Indian context is bound to support Muslim League and its politics. It is very mistaken view. In fact it is strange irony that while most of the modernist among Muslims supported Muslim League which ultimately resulted in partition of the country, many ‘Ulama, in fact majority of them, opposed Muslim League and its politics.


Maulana Shibli Nu’mani was one among them. He was highly critical of Muslim League and its narrow scope of politics and he supported the Indian National Congress and supported Hindu-Muslim unity. Those who opposed Muslim participation in national politics and quoted Sir Syed to justify their approach Shibli replied that what Sir Syed said had a definite context and that in any case taqlid (blind following) was not the virtue of living communities. And for Muslims except the Prophet (PBUH) no one is above error. One has to think afresh and in the context.


Shibli wrote an interesting article “Musalmanon ki Political Karvat” (Turning point of Muslim Politics) which is strong critique of Muslim League politics. He calls it ‘strange thing’. He says in this essay that Muslims when asked about their politics mention one hypothetical and useless thing called Muslim league and say that this is Muslim politics. Today thousands of educated (Muslims) think this mirage as river of life. He then says that Muslim League cannot be a true political party even after thousand years.


He also raises fundamental questions like why Muslim League came into existence, why was it established and who established it? He even calls it a ‘tamasha’ (mere show). He then asks three questions: 1) Does Muslim league’s constitution conform to politics? 2) Does it have symptoms of politics? And 3) Can Muslim League be of some use as Muslim League?


This is very harsh criticism which even staunch nationalists did not attempt. He says that Muslim League was founded as a result of Shimla Deputation and this spirit will always be reflected in it and that is why all it demands is that whatever rights for the Indian people the Congress has been able to get as a result of its thirty years of struggle Muslims’ share be fixed in that. The League propaganda is nothing but that Hindus want to suppress Muslims and therefore we Muslims should secure their position.


He also compares the demands put forward by the Congress and the ones made by the Muslim League. He then says that while the Congress demands rights of all Indians Muslim League talks only about Muslims. It demands fixation of Muslim share in government services, Muslims should get representation in Municipalities and Boards and it feels sorry for efforts being made for Urdu’s rights and wants an inquiry into Islamic waqf functioning.


He then observes that as a result of the efforts by the Congress India is advancing steadily towards self-government. He then also compares the method of functioning of the Congress and the League. According to him whereas the Congress agitates for its demands the League members do nothing except putting forward their demands and are not active enough even to answer what government says in respect of its demands.


Maulana Shibli does not approve of Muslims making separate demands but would like both Hindus and Muslims jointly struggle for greater participation in the government of India rather than fight each other. He also criticizes Muslim League for lack of sincerity, selfishness, lack of spirit of sacrifice and finally for its moneyed, interest-bound and slavish leadership. Shibli also derides the Muslim League‘s financial dependence on a certain ‘generous hand’ (meaning perhaps Aga Khan), which controls its policies.


On the Muslim League demand that Muslim representation be assured for Muslims Shibli raises again some very fundamental questions. Wherever Muslim members have been elected or nominated what has been their record of functioning? What these Muslims members of Viceroy’s Council have achieved? What questions did they raise? Which measures did they recommend for reforms of the present system?


Or the problems they raised were just commonplace or were studied measures. He even says that the Hindu members carefully studies all records, collects relevant figures and raises questions which result in important consequences. And our (i.e. Muslim) representative raises questions in accusatory way. According to Shibli this is not politics but lack of any sense of responsibility.


Shibli says that politics is world’s great sentiment only equal to religion in its appeal. It enlivens human being’s all emotions, it arouses all energies in him. It creates in human spirit of sacrifice and selflessness. Did our politics (meaning Muslim politics) create such noble virtues even in one person? Does anyone taking to politics is prepared for such selflessness? Does he feel within himself any firm resolve and courage to act?


Then he gives example of Servants of India Society and says did we produce a single person who despite being a graduate reserves his whole life for the community just for Rs. 30 per month? Have we produced any example like Gurukul in which 300 persons are getting education?


This criticism we must see in the background of Muslim League members who were mostly wealthy jagirdars and moneyed people and wanted to exploit Muslim sentiments only for their own benefit. Maulana Shibli saw on the other hand the Congress leaders who were prepared for sacrifices and were mostly selfless and ever ready to go to jails and sacrifice their own interests.


Shibli wanted politics based on national interest and therefore, required nothing but sacrifice and selflessness. That is why he compares it with religion. For person like Shibli who was great scholar of Islam and always ready to defend Islam and its teachings, to compare politics with religion, is of great importance. In other words for Shibli politics should be as pure as religion.


Politics should never be based on self-interest and should not be divisive and exclusive. It should be inclusive of all sections of people in the country. Politics, according to him should never reflect petty interests. He was therefore, great advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity and joint struggle for common goals.


However, Shibli was also realist and despite his utter disgust with Muslim League’s demands he considers Muslim League as an accomplished fact of political life and would like to see it reformed and function, like another political party in addition to the Congress. It could be like liberal, conservative and radical schools and groups in the politics of England.


He recommends that the League should include all proposals of the Congress in its programme and should fight for them legally like the Hindu moderate group. He feels that Justice Ameer Ali’s recent proposal for a joint Hindu-Muslim stage for common problems should be adopted. And he says that Muslim League executive committee should be rid of big land-owners.


It does not mean that Shibli did not give any importance to certain specific needs of Muslims and need for separate political platform. However, he remained skeptical of Muslim League providing such a platform. League continued to be an anathema for him till the very last. According to Mrs. Meher Afroz Murad (Intellectual Modernism of Shibli Nu’mani) “…more basic reason for Shibli’s almost total rejection of the League was that he could not stomach the very rationale offered for a separate political platform for the Muslims.”


Criticizing Wiqar al-Mulk’s article Shibli wrote:


“[It] could have been the voice of a truly courageous Muslim, had it not contained this incorrect logic that, if we join National Congress, our existence will be destroyed in the same way in which small rivers vanish into the ocean. If the Parsees numbering only one hundred thousand can preserve their existence in the midst of one hundred and ninety million Hindus and fifty million Muslims, then fifty million Muslims should not be afraid that their existence will be destroyed.”  (Muhr Afroz Murad ibid)


Thus we see that a great scholar and historian of Islam like Maulana Shibli never agreed with Muslim League politics and would have opposed partition vehemently had he been alive in the critical period of forties. We must get rid of stereotype that all Muslim thinkers, religious personalities and intellectuals stood for partition of the country. In fact it is only vested interests as repeatedly pointed out by Shibli Nu’mani who promoted separatism in their own interests.   (Centre for Study of Society and Secularism Mumbai:


(Secular Perspective August 1-15, 2009)

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